Closer Look at Tightening Bears Training Camp Return Battles

Former Bears return man DeAndre Carter officially returned to the team and has shown at various NFL stops the ability to compete with players the Bears already have returning punts and kicks.
DeAndre Carter has developed his return skills and receiving skills since leaving  the Bears after a short stint in 2020.
DeAndre Carter has developed his return skills and receiving skills since leaving the Bears after a short stint in 2020. / Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports
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The signing by the Bears of return man DeAndre Carter became official on Tuesday, creating instant job competition on special teams.

It could go even beyond special teams, and no one can know yet the extent of the special teams impact.

Carter has returned both punts and kicks in the NFL and actually fielded punts for the Bears for a very brief time.

In the pandemic season of 2020, they needed a punt returner after the terrible career-derailing torn ACL on a fair catch by Tarik Cohen. It wouldn't be accurate to call it career-ending because he's currently on the Jets roster but Cohen hasn't appeared in an NFL game since that Week 3, 2020 injury. The Bears didn't need Carter as kick returner because they had Cordarrelle Patterson at the time.

Ted Ginn Jr. was on the roster, and he was one of the better punt returners of the previous decade. However, Ginn was at the end of his career and had trouble fielding punts, let alone returning them. They attempted to use Anthony Miller returning punts, but as their third receiver he was playing too vital of a role on offense.

GM Ryan Pace found Carter on waivers after he had been discarded by Houston. Carter only returned 10 punts in Weeks 8, 9 and 10 before going on the COVID-19 list. He came back to return three punts for an 8.33-yard average against Jacksonville and then make two fair catches against Green Bay. His contract expired and the Bears didn't bring him back.

They went to Jakeem Grant the next year and he made the Pro Bowl before leaving as a free agent, and since then it's been Dante Pettis and Trent Taylor doing it without really providing a big-play threat.

Carter, a 5-foot-8, 190-pounder, is in his seventh NFL season and the 31-year-old's career has been revitalized the last few years since leaving Chicago. It showed up in several ways.

In 2021 the Commanders needed a kick returner. Carter hadn't been better than average at it on 45 career kick returns with Houston and Philadelphia. He never averaged over the 22.4 yards a kick return he had with the Eagles and Texans as a rookie. But at Washington he broke one kick return 101 yards for a TD and averaged 25.1 yards that season.

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Carter's kick return abilities then seemed to revert back to his earlier days but his punt return skills reached a peak the last two years. He averaged 11.7 yards for the Chargers in 2022 and last year 9.7 yards for the Raiders.

The undrafted free agent from Sacramento State also caught a career-high 46 passes for the Chargers one season after making a career-high 24 catches for the Commanders.

Carter's fit could be twofold for the Bears. Besides punt returns, they could let him challenge Velus Jones for the kick return job.

Jones has been among the best three kick returners in the league the last two years in terms of average, at 27.6 and 27.2 yards a return. He averaged 27.4 yards for 38 returns in his career.

The new kick return rule may or may not benefit Jones. He usually is at his best when he has a few yards to build up his 4.31-second 40-yard speed and then make one cut or continue going on the same path.

The return rules now put the coverage team at the return team's 40. This might not let Jones build up speed, but blockers get to start only 5 yards away from the coverage players and this might let them form a wall well ahead of where Jones fields it.

Also entering into it all is the type of player teams will use on coverage and blocking squads now on returns. It could all change and require a different type of return man.

Asked about the types of players and the strategies involved, special teams coordinator Richard Hightower couldn't be too exact. One thing that has been apparent at offseason practices is they haven't loaded up their return and coverage teams with offensive or defensive linemen like speculation league-wide had it. It's been thought this could happen in an attempt to set up or defend what look more like traditional running plays from scrimmage than kick returns.

"So like we're going to have to match up with whatever personnel group we're going against," Hightower said. "And we've been fortunate to have bigger players that can run and also even smaller players who are more powerful like a Roschon (Johnson) or like a (Travis) Homer. Those guys can block linebackers and they're fast enough to block DBs.

"And then you've got your other body types like (Austin) Booker, who we just got just got, or we got Dom Robinson or Jake Martin we just signed. Those guys are bigger but they're fast enough too. So I think the personnel department has done a hell of a job getting a mix of all of those just to see what it looks like in the preseason."

Preseason should also give them a better answer of whether Jones or Carter will look better on kick returns based on who they're facing in coverage.

What does appear likely is that if Carter can return punts better than the Pettis, who averaged 9.1 yards in 2022, he might have that job regardless of Jones and kick returns.

Also, if it comes down to having a player available on returns who also fits into the receiver group on Sundays should one of the top three get injured, Carter has averaged 18 receptions a season . It's almost what Pettis has averaged (20.8).

Meanwhile, Jones has made only 11 receptions total for his first two seasons.

Bears Return Battle

DeAndre Carter in 2022-23: 50 receptions, 577 yards, 3 TDs; 53 punt returns, 10.8 yards/return; 37 kick returns, 20.5 yards a return.

Velus Jones in 2022-23: 11 receptions, 127 yards, 1 TD; 5 punt returns, 7.0 yards/return; 38 kick returns, 27.4-yard average.

Dante Pettis in 2022*: 19 receptions, 245 yards, 3 TDs; 18 punt returns, 9.1-yard average; did not return kicks.

*Missed 2023 with neck injury

Twitter: BearDigest@BearsOnMaven


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Gene Chamberlain

GENE CHAMBERLAIN

BearDigest.com publisher Gene Chamberlain has covered the Chicago Bears full time as a beat writer since 1994 and prior to this on a part-time basis for 10 years. He covered the Bears as a beat writer for Suburban Chicago Newspapers, the Daily Southtown, Copley News Service and has been a contributor for the Daily Herald, the Associated Press, Bear Report, CBS Sports.com and The Sporting News. He also has worked a prep sports writer for Tribune Newspapers and Sun-Times newspapers.